Munya Chawawa: “I want to break the mould of being from a classically trained, elitist background”
The British-Zimbabwean comedian and satirist on making his way to viral success, using the news as comic inspiration and how the state of the world has made for some of his best work yet.
Comedy wasn’t always Munya Chawawa’s first choice of career.
And yet, his self-produced comedy sketches have been going viral throughout the UK’s tumultuous lockdown period, offering some light relief to all those stuck at home.
Satirising and poking fun at mass topics and popular subjects has become Chawawa’s MO, and nothing is off limits: the government’s handling of the Coronavirus crisis, the mainstream media’s coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests, or Katie Hopkins getting banned from Twitter to name a few.
27-year-old Chawawa grew up in Zimbabwe before moving to a small village in Norfolk with dreams of becoming a presenter. Aware of what charisma meant from a young age, he developed a taste for being on screen by sending home videos to his grandparents.
“I pursued presenting but found it really hard to break down that door. So I became a producer and scriptwriter,” Chawawa says. It’s something that’s allowed him to refine and sharpen his comedic writing.
“I decided being a presenter wasn’t a million miles off from being a comedy performer,” he continues. “I gave it a try two years ago via my online sketches, and the third one I did went viral.”
“I ended up getting sidetracked and realising that I really enjoyed doing comedy sketches. That feels like my calling.”
The hilarity of Chawawa’s sketches lies in the incisive way that he re-imagines British names and institutions: take Craig Covid and his new coronavirus-themed banger Staying In, Grime star Wiley turned school tutor or Barty Crease as a parody of every BBC News reporter, well, ever.
Chawawa has successfully tapped into our collective British consciousness and uses comedy as a mechanism to find humour in that – even if the topics at hand highlight serious issues, such as systemic racism within the media.
Now based in Forest Hill, London, Chawawa recognises the benefits of blowing up in his late twenties. “Having had the experience of growing up without TikTok and stuff like that, you’re used to doing things the hard way, you have to put in the hours,” he says. “On TikTok you can go viral with your first video. It scrambles your brain a bit.”
Chawawa’s brain is far from scrambled. He’s got his sights set on becoming one of Britain’s best loved satirists: “I want to break the mould of being from a classically trained, elitist background”.
“I’ve always been trained in my life, especially by my dad who is a very conventional Zimbabwean, that you have to live with purpose. You have to try and leave some sort of impression on this earth when you go.”
This is something Chawawa is certainly on his way to achieving with a string of projects up his sleeve: a collab with Dutch brand Patta (dropping imminently – “Drill VC, an extensive fashion lookbook for modern-day drillers”), conversations with production companies to develop a full scale show, all the while continuing to work on his series Merking From Home.
“The dream would be to have a Netflix show,” he says. “Or a Channel 4 show [that’s] not at 2 AM. Maybe at like, 10 PM.” Watch this space.
How has lockdown been for you? Has it been a creative period?
Definitely! Lockdown has been a real blessing in disguise. Obviously it has been a very heavy time for the world, but I’ve seen creative inspiration sprout from many places. For me, having the time to just sit down with my own thoughts and knowing that there’s an audience ready and waiting to watch whatever you put out – that’s driven me to new creative heights.
I suppose we won’t have another moment like this again, where everyone has been stuck at home glued to their phones.
As a content creator as well, ordinarily you release a video and maybe people are on the tube or they’re at work, they’re in the office or with friends at a bar. Finding this one time where everyone is around to watch what you put out is the ideal scenario for anyone creating anything. People read more, watch more, listen to more… It’s been like having a captive audience.
Are you classically trained in comedy?
Well, I did drama A Level. Being an exaggerated tree in a play didn’t massively contribute to what’s going on now, though. I actually lost confidence going to university because I wasn’t really on the same wavelength as the others – I wasn’t a big drinker and didn’t gel too well with my flatmates. I never fully connected with how university was supposed to be. Doing the sketches has sort of been a rediscovery of that, re-finding the person that I was back in Zimbabwe when I’d be making those videos for my grandparents.
What TV shows did you watch when you were growing up?
I was addicted to wrestling! It’s such a performance heavy spectacle, with all the theatre between fights. But I think what really inspired me was coming to England and discovering shows like 8 Out of 10 Cats, Have I Got News For You, The Last Leg, and just being in awe at the quickness and razor sharp wit. I was like, I want to do that. I don’t see many people from my background in those primetime slots. My favourite show of all time is Would I Lie To You? I’d like to go down that kind of route as opposed to the more showboating style of comedy where it’s all about being really loud and extroverted. I want to make a thinking man’s comedy.
What comes first for you: character or subject matter?
I think I build the character around a [current] topic, definitely. Johnny Oliver, my parody Caribbean chef and cultural magpie, came from Jamie Oliver. Unknown P is based on the rich upper class people I grew up around when I moved back to England and lived in a small village in Norfolk. Barty Crease is a caricature of every mainstream British newsreader. People will say to me, “Have you got any more characters coming out?” and my answer to that is always, “Well, it depends what comes out in the news.” The stories give birth to the characters. That’s what I enjoy the most because it means that as long as there’s news, there’s characters. It ensures a bit of longevity in knowing that because the world is so crazy, there’s always going to be something new to create from.
Who do you think would win in a fight: Unknown P or Johnny Oliver?
I think Johnny Oliver would win because his hips are so well lubricated that he’d be able to dodge any incoming attack.
When did you realise you were funny?
I never anticipated being able to make other people laugh. My friends always criticised me for laughing at my own jokes, but I really thought I was the only person in the world with my sense of humour. So when my following grew, I was, and still am, so baffled that people enjoy my jokes and scripts and physical comedy. That is the recurring reward of doing these sketches – finding out that people share a sense of humour with me.
How would you describe what you do?
I try to give a satirical take on the biggest global talking points. It brings everything into perspective. Race and class and privilege, we talk about them and there is some amazing literature out there, but some people can’t really process that information. Sometimes comedy is a language that unites all different kinds of people: it’s the language of laughter. If you can disguise or embed a message within that, it’s an effective way of communicating any injustices or riffs in society that otherwise people don’t want to address.